Tracking down wanted parolees

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas – Over the years, thousands of criminals have been released from prison under the auspices of a controversial old law. Referred to as mandatory supervision or mandatory release, the law was originally drafted to help alleviate prison overcrowding.

“Some of Houston's most notorious killers have been released on mandatory supervision,” said Andy Kahan, with Houston Crime Stoppers.

The law originally worked by allowing felons, even violent ones, to accrue so-called good time. Every day they behaved in prison, they got to knock a day off the time they were required to stay in prison before the state had no choice but to release them on parole.

“We've seen it time and time again -- mandatory, mandatory, mandatory,” said Kahan.

After seeing inmates serve only fractions of their sentences, the Legislature banned the practice for violent felons in 1995, but couldn't make the change retroactive.

“So you have this pool of offenders where timing is everything in life,” said Kahan.

Changing the law narrowed the types of offenders eligible for mandatory supervision. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reports that, out of the more than 140,000 offenders currently in prison, only 1,501 are eligible for mandatory supervision.

The issue of mandatory supervision was brought back to the forefront in July. That is when Jose Gilberto Rodriguez was accused of going on a rampage that included robbery, murder and attempted murder.

Rodriguez went to prison in the early 1990s for auto theft, burglary and attempted aggravated sexual assault. He was sentenced under the old law and was paroled in September 2017. His release came with several restrictions, including registering as a sex offender, submitting to polygraph examinations and having his whereabouts tracked through a GPS monitor.

“Mr. Rodriguez had shown himself to be a fairly model parolee,” said Jeremy Desel, director of public information for TDCJ.

Desel said Rodriguez complied with all of his parole conditions until July 5, when a parole officer received a tampering alert from his GPS monitor.

“When parole first got the tampering alert on the 5th, what did the parole officer do?” asked KPRC investigator Robert Arnold.

“It appears there was some level of human error,” said Desel.

TDCJ policy mandates a parole officer initiate a face-to-face meeting with a parolee within 24 hours of receiving a tampering alert. Desel said the reason for this policy is because tampering alerts are nonspecific. They can be triggered by simple glitches, inadvertent signal loss or an offender cutting the device off their ankle.

“The only way to find that out is to actively investigate and get eyes on the device,” said Desel.

“Did that happen (with Rodriguez)?” asked Arnold.

“It appears it did not,” said Desel.

In fact, a warrant for Rodríguez's arrest wasn't issued until July 8, three days later. The same day, the monitor’s battery died. Police said that, the following day, Rodriguez embarked on a crime spree.

State Sen. John Whitmire was more direct in his assessment of how the initial alert was handled.

“The parole officer and her supervision failed. They did not respond. They did not do their job,” said Whitmire. “I would emphasize to you (that) the parole officer and her supervisor have both been fired.”

Desel would only say that those involved in the Rodriguez case received disciplinary action.

Still, Whitmire believes what happened with Rodriguez was an isolated lapse and the overall system of supervising parolees is strict and effective.

“The tragedy of the Rodriguez case was a human breakdown,” said Whitmire. “Certainly, the general supervision of parolees, in my judgement, is a good one.”

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo echoed Whitmire’s words, but believes more can be done to get wanted parolees with violent pasts off the streets faster.

“Holding their feet to the fire and holding them accountable,” said Acevedo.

Parole officers notify local law enforcement agencies when a warrant is issued, because parole officers don't have the authority to arrest anyone. But, Acevedo said, those notices don't help police know which wanted parolees should be treated with more urgency. He said the department receives 50 to 75 notices a week, from all over the state, regarding wanted parolees.

Acevedo said he wants to work with parole officers to see if there is a way to better alert local police departments when parolees with violent pasts go on the run.

“To see how they can help us help them,” said Acevedo.

Acevedo said he's meeting with other law enforcement agencies about possibly creating a regional task force to track down parolees, such as Rodriguez, who go on the run. Whitmire said he would like to see similar action in all parts of the state.

“We're certainly open to any and all help that we can get from all levels of law enforcement,” said Desel.

Kahan said he would also like to see more public notification of parole absconders with violent pasts.

“The public can be your eyes and ears,” said Kahan.

Desel said TDCJ is “actively engaged in looking for all the best practices and best ways that we can to get these cases, especially the ones that are of high priority, in front of the public.”

According to TDCJ, there are approximately 84,000 parolees under various levels of supervision throughout the state and approximately 1,400 parole officers. In the Houston region, according to TDCJ, there are approximately 18,000 parolees and 2,500 active parole warrants. Just over 500 of the warrants involve offenders with violent pasts.